I got a bit lax with the posting mid-December. Christmas, New Years, and time spent with family filled up my hours, leaving little time for reflection, much less writing. I’m back now, and it seems like it’s time for a general skeptic’s news update.
December saw several interesting news cycles devoted to religious controversy. There was the Duck Dynasty Debacle, the defrocking of Rev. Frank Schaefer, and (more close to home for me), the dismissal of Chaplain Brett Hadley from Highland View Academy—an Adventist Academy in Maryland.
While all these conflicts generated a flurry of discussion as phrases like “First Amendment Rights,” “religious freedom,” and “persecution” were bandied about in blog posts and comment sections, I found myself somewhat reluctant to write about any of them because they seem so thoroughly legal in nature. The suspension of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson essentially ended before it began (Honestly, his ignorant pining for the Jim Crow era offended me as much or more than his anti-gay comments, which were predictable given Robertson’s politics and worldview.), Frank Schaefer has received a job offer from a more progressive congregation, and Brett Hadley—well, I suppose for now Hadley is just another casualty in the ongoing ideological war within the Adventist church. It all seems moot now.
Ultimately, what defined whether these cases were “free speech cases” boils down to contract law. Did A&E’s contract with Phil Robertson permit them to discipline him at their discretion? In the cases of Schaefer and Hadley, both the Methodist and Adventist churches appeared to be well within their rights when they removed them for failing to represent the official positions they were hired to promote and uphold. In other words, what good is an Adventist chaplain if he doesn’t promote Adventist views? Both men may be criticized as traitorous or lauded as courageous (I lean towards courageous, myself), and the politics involved in their discipline may be unfortunate, but on a very technical level their terminations are the result of a contract dispute. Their employment contracts presumably put limits on what these men could and could not ‘say.’
The right to dissent does not include the right to be insulated from reasonable repercussions. This is the reality missing from most free speech discussions I encounter in the media. Free speech does not mean the right to say anything at anytime without blow-back from your peers, or even (necessarily) your employer. If free speech is extended to everyone that includes the people who protest the protesters; and if an individual is hired to perform a representative function, they cease to be useful to their employer when they no longer represent them with accuracy. This issue becomes complicated when we consider that a church is not just a business (although, let’s be honest, it is a business), but a physical and ideological community, subject to the ebb and flow of culture, and given to development as the comprising individuals change. The basic principle, however, remains the same. Most importantly, first amendment rights—including the right to free speech and freedom of religion—are primarily intended to protect people from the government, as indicated by the first five words, “Congress shall make no law…”
I disagree with much of what Phil Robertson stands for, but I believe his tenure on A&E should depend not upon public opinion, but upon the agreement he made with the network to produce Duck Dynasty. Likewise, I deeply respect the courageous stand of Reverent Scheafer who, as far as I can tell, is entirely loyal to the Methodist church, and is driven by that loyalty to criticize the institution where he feels it falls short of its true potential. However, I do not necessarily feel that his fate, or the fate of pastors and chaplains like Hadley, are inherently unjust simply because I agree with their social politics. They were each hired to do a job, and the security of that job can and should depend upon the agreements they made with their employers and their continued capacity to fulfill those agreements.
Finally, I think when Christians in the Middle East and Asia are being harassed, imprisoned, and killed in cold blood, we need to be more careful about what we call “persecution.” Freedom of conscience controversies will continue to exist and even mount in the coming decades as churches modernize or fade away, and the tug-o’-war between those for and against secular government in the United States persists. Still, most people who live in the United States (and much of the Western World) have the freedom to talk openly about their religions and worldviews. They may risk alienation from friends, family, and even employers, but we’re not going to be thrown in jail.
That’s what I take away from the holiday seasons’s round of cultural controversies. We can talk about them. We’re doing alright. ♦